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View: What the Moon mission told us about Earth

Iconic images like Earthrise and Blue Marble helped us understand our place in the universe.

Updated: Jul 14, 2019, 11.26 AM IST
Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the Moon, ending a decades-long space race and marking a milestone in human achievement. But the legacy of the Apollo missions is not only about space. “We set out to explore the Moon,” wrote astronaut William Anders last year, “and instead discovered the Earth.”

Long before Google Earth gave us a bird’s eye view of our homes, the Apollo missions gave us our first iconic images of Earth, changing our perceptions of our planet forever. These pictures, which highlighted the beauty and fragility of Earth, helped launch the green movement of the 1970s and encouraged a closer study of the environment.

Three images were particularly important. The first was a photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by Anders on Apollo 8, the first manned orbit of the Moon. The mission came at the end of a tumultuous year. “The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the protests against our involvement there, and the Cold War, divided us against ourselves and against the world,” Anders recalled of the time. “Forces from within and without threatened us. Everywhere, tensions ran high.”

Circling the Moon, Anders and the others had a sudden view of Earth. “The Earth we saw rising over the battered grey lunar surface was small and delicate, a magnificent spot of colour in the vast blackness of space. Once distant places appeared inseparably close. Borders that once rendered division vanished. All of humanity appeared joined together on this glorious-but-fragile sphere.”

Anders snapped a picture. Known as Earthrise, the image came to be used on the covers of Time magazine, issued as a US postal stamp, and chosen as the symbol for the first Earth Day in April 1970. It was also the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, a counter-cultural magazine that Steve Jobs once described as “Google in paperback form”. Life selected it as one of its 100 Photographs that Changed the World, calling it perhaps “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

The eventual impact of the image, suggests historian Robert Poole, “is the story of how the mightiest shot in the Cold War turned into the twentieth century’s ultimate utopian moment.”

Another image taken three years later from Apollo 17 in December 1972, the last manned Moon mission, became equally iconic. Known as the Blue Marble, it was the first photo of the whole illuminated globe (it also shows the Tamil Nadu cyclone of that year). A third image, taken at the request of Carl Sagan from the Voyager 1 space probe in 1990, shows Earth as a pixelsize pin-prick in the vastness of the universe, what Sagan called “a pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders, this picture shows the Earth rising over the wasteland of the Moon.

Today we take these images for granted. But when they first came out they were a revelation, offering a completely new perspective. What did people see? The smallness of this planet in the vast stage of the universe. Earth is the only seemingly habitable planet, an integrated swirl of water and land and air, an oasis. For astronauts especially, the view from space induced what philosopher Frank White called an “overview effect”: a cognitive shift that “the Earth is a whole system, everything on it is connected, and we’re a part of it.” Neil Armstrong speaks about blotting out the Earth with his thumb while standing on the Moon. “I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Space was seen as the final frontier in the decade-long run-up to Moon mission. Yet once the mission was accomplished, once the race was won, humans never returned to the Moon, unlike the science fiction dramas of that era, ‘Star Trek’ and 2001: A Space Odyssey. The costs were prohibitive — Apollo cost the US 4% of its budget — and the purpose unclear. Instead space technology — military technology — was used to help planet Earth. Satellites have provided ever more sophisticated data over the years, revealing illegal destruction of forests in Brazil, shrinking groundwater in India, or predicting hurricanes in the US.

In recent years private entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have once again begun to champion the old dreams of space exploration — colonies in Mars, tourists in space, finding alien life. But for NASA and others, climate change is adding new urgency to Earth observation. NASA’s former deputy administrator Lori Garver set up an organisation called Earthrise Alliance to increase the use of satellite data for climate issues. “The value of space can be seen in three decades of satellite imagery,” she said at a conference last week. “When we arrived at the Moon, we looked back and saw we are all on a fragile planet together, and that we need to do something to ensure its survival.” The final frontier may be Earth.

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